(2013) Drama (CBS) Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman, Justin Timberlake, Garrett Hedlund, F. Murray Abraham, Ethan Phillips, Robin Bartlett, Max Casella, Jerry Grayson, Jeanine Serralles, Adam Driver, Stark Sands, Alex Karpovsky, Helen Hong, Bradley Mott, Michael Rosner, Bonnie Rose, Sylvia Cauders, Amelia McClain. Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
Some places and times held a sort of magic that created oodles of great music that has stood the test of time – places like Athens, Georgia in the mid-80s, San Francisco in the late 60s, Manchester, England in the 90s and Greenwich Village in the late 50s, early 60s. In the last of these, beatniks and folk musicians were thrown together to begin a phase of rock and roll exemplified by Bob Dylan and Dave van Ronk, among others.
In this milieu toils Llewyn Davis (Isaac), once a member of the duo Timlin and Davis – until his partner threw himself off the George Washington Bridge in a fit of melancholy that was as counterculture as a suicide can get (“You’re supposed to throw yourself off the Brooklyn Bridge,” grouses one character. “The George Washington Bridge? Who does that?!?”) and now Davis is trying to go it alone. It is winter in the Village and he has no money, existing from gig to gig and without a winter coat. He relies on the generosity of his friends to give him a couch to sleep on during the night and maybe a cup of coffee or some food.
When he accidentally lets out the cat of his Upper West Side buddies the Gorfeins (Phillips, Bartlett) who essentially show off Llewyn as their bohemian folk singer friend, he embarks on an odyssey of his own that takes him into the life of Jean (Mulligan), a fellow folk singer and a member of the duo Jim (Timberlake) and Jean who has gotten pregnant. Who is the father? Could be Jim, whom she is married to and wants to have a baby with…or it might be Llewyn whom she slept with in an inadvisable night of drunken regret. She doesn’t want to have the baby if it’s at all possible that the baby could be his. Fortunately for her, he has an abortionist on call for what seems to be a string of brief flings.
He ends up on a road trip to Chicago with a taciturn driver (Hedlund) and a garrulous jazz musician (Goodman) who when he’s not sleeping is regaling Llewyn with highly mannered stories about jazz hipsters he has known. He goes to meet an impresario (Abraham) his agent (Grayson) was supposed to have sent a copy of his album to…but didn’t. In tow is this cat who is the albatross around the neck of the Ancient Mariner.
The Coens specialize in taking ancient stories and modernizing them and there are elements of this here, not just in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner but also in their old standard Odyssey as well as maybe a few newer tales. While there is a good deal of humor here, it is less in the dry, deadpan style they’re known for and a bit more subtle and a lot darker.
Oscar Isaac kills here. Not only does he sing and play guitar, he also acts. Llewyn Davis is a bit of a prick; he uses his friends and when they’re usefulness has been exhausted, he moves on. He is frustrated and is known to lash out without provocation and he is a bit on the arrogant side, Starving Artist division. Yet even despite Llewyn Davis’ many faults, Isaac imbues him with a kind of empathy that allows him to see through the pain. While he doesn’t necessarily like people all that much, he relates to them real well. Isaac, who has been one great role away from stardom, has found that role. Expect him to be an A-lister from here on in.
There are some fine supporting performances here as well, from the shrewish folk singer by Mulligan to the mannered jazz musician by Goodman which is a good deal out of both their comfort zones I think. Timberlake also does some good work that is a bit out of his own comfort zone, playing the terminally nice and terminally clueless Jim.
The music here is absolutely amazing. My mom used to love Peter, Paul and Mary and had an album of Vanguard folk singers that included the Weavers, Odetta and Cisco Houston and I listened to that album often. While the folk singers on that album weren’t the well-scrubbed WASPs that several of the singers are here (and which the dark-haired Llewyn is not), the vibe is at least approachable. Most of the music was recorded live and the actors mainly sang and played their instruments for real.
What happened though was that I felt disconnected from the movie to a large extent. I normally love what the Coen Brothers do and even their less successful movies (Burn After Reading) have at least something of interest about them. Frankly I admired the craft of the movie in re-creating the era; as I said, I loved the music and the performances as well. The movie just didn’t resonate with me. Maybe I was just in a bad mood but I left the movie feeling a little disappointed. Maybe it is the circular nature of the story which begins and ends with essentially the same incident although you’re never sure when the flashback actually begins.
Still, the Coens’ worst is better than the best of most directors. They take chances and at the end of the day, their movies aren’t made to please anybody but themselves which is the proper way to go about making movies. Try to please too many people and you end up pleasing nobody.
REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous music. Isaac is a star.
REASONS TO STAY: Much more mainstream than we’re used to from the Coens.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly rough language including some sexual references as well as some brief violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The photograph of Chris Eldridge, guitarist for the Punch Brothers (a real folk band who contributed heavily to the music) is seen on the Timlin and Davis album cover; Eldridge is identified as Mike Timlin, the partner who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/12/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 92/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Mighty Wind
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)